Cardinal Pell Takes Leave of Absence to Address Sexual Abuse Allegations

Speaking to reporters at the Vatican, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy vehemently denied the charges related to allegations of ‘historical sexual offenses’ filed against him June 29 by Australian police.

Cardinal George Pell holds a news conference at the Vatican, June 29. The cardinal said he will return to Australia to defend himself against sexual assault charges.
Cardinal George Pell holds a news conference at the Vatican, June 29. The cardinal said he will return to Australia to defend himself against sexual assault charges. (photo: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal George Pell has strenuously denied the charges related to allegations of “historical sexual offenses” filed against him Thursday by Australian police, and said he welcomes the opportunity to finally defend himself in court.

He also disclosed he had been granted a leave of absence by Pope Francis, in order to address the legal charges.

Speaking to reporters at the Vatican this morning, the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (SPE) said he is “innocent of these charges, they are false” and that the “whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

The cardinal, 76, said the allegations have been under investigation for two years and were “leaked to the media” as part of a “relentless character assassination.”

“All along I’ve been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations,” the Australian cardinal said, adding that he is “looking forward to finally having my day in court.”

“News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer me the opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome, to work,” he said.

In a June 29 statement, deputy commissioner for Victoria Police, Shane Patton, said Cardinal Pell is facing “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offenses” and that standard procedures have been used in bringing the charges against him.

He also stressed that as none of the allegations have been tested in any court yet, the cardinal “has a right to due process and so therefore it’s important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.” Patton said it was important that “natural justice is afforded to all the parties involved, including Cardinal Pell and the complainants in this matter.”

Cardinal Pell has been summoned to appear before the Melbourne Magistrate’s court July 18 for a filing hearing to face the charges, which were served to his legal team Wednesday (Thursday Australian time). He will be the most senior Vatican official to ever be charged with abuse.


The Allegations

The alleged cases have appeared in a new book called Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell by Louise Milligan, a reporter for Australia’s ABC network, who spent more than two years covering Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

During that commission, which began its work in 2013, the senior Australian Vatican official was accused of mishandling cases against clergy members while he served as the leader of the archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney.

In his third testimony to the royal commission, given last year in Rome via video link (he volunteered to be present in Australia but medical advice warned him not to travel because of heart problems), the cardinal emphatically denied covering up abuse but acknowledged the Church had made “enormous mistakes” in addressing the issue.

Shortly before appearing before that commission hearing, it was leaked he was under investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting minors beginning early in his priesthood and continuing until he became archbishop of Melbourne.

He said at that time that the allegations were “scandalous and utterly false” and requested an inquiry into the leak, which he said was “maliciously timed” to “cause damage to me as a witness” ahead of the royal commission hearing.

In her book, Milligan has said that she had interviewed the cardinal’s accusers for more than a year and that the accusations covered several decades. Some episodes were said to have occurred at a pool in Ballarat, a city in Victoria where the cardinal was born and where he returned after being ordained as a priest in Rome. New, unproven cases were documented in a television program aired in May.

Last year, three detectives questioned Cardinal Pell in Rome about the allegations, having established a task force to look into them involving both religious and nongovernmental organizations.

In an email, the police said detectives were “investigating allegations of historical sexual assaults committed in Ballarat East between 1976 and 1980 and East Melbourne between 1996 and 2001.”


Vatican Response

In 2014, Pope Francis tapped Cardinal Pell to oversee the Vatican's financial reforms by appointing him prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. He is also a member of the Council of Cardinals advising the Pope on Church reform.

Ordained in the diocese of Ballarat in 1966, where he served as a priest and later as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, Cardinal Pell was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1987, and was named archbishop in 1996.

In his statement Thursday, Cardinal Pell said he had kept Pope Francis, who received him in private audience on Tuesday, “regularly informed during these long months.” The cardinal said he had talked with the Pope about needing “to take leave to clear my name” and expressed his gratitude to the Pope for allowing that to happen. “I’ve spoken to my lawyers when this will be necessary, and I’ve spoken to my doctors for the best way to achieve this,” he said.

In a statement, the Holy See said it had learned “with regret” about the news of the charges, adding that the Secretariat for the Economy would continue its work in Cardinal Pell’s absence until further notice.

The Vatican stressed that the Pope has appreciated his “honesty,” and is “grateful for his collaboration,” particularly for his “energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals (C9).”

The statement also noted Cardinal Pell’s repeated condemnations of abuse of minors as “immoral and intolerable,” his cooperation with the Australian authorities on the issue, his support for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and his work as a diocesan bishop in Australia to establish “systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”


Impact on Financial Reforms

News of the charges comes after three years of headwinds for Cardinal Pell as he has tried to clean up Vatican finances and make them more transparent. The Register previously reported apparent resistance from various officials in the Vatican to the cardinal’s reforms.

Since his appointment in 2014, the Secretariat for the Economy has had its powers steadily stripped away, particularly with regards to the handling of Vatican real estate which was initially transferred to the SPE and then later returned to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) where it has traditionally been handled.

The cardinal also suffered a blow last year when an external audit by large accountancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, arranged by Cardinal Pell and others, suddenly ended after just four months and without the cardinal’s knowledge.

Then in May this year, APSA issued instructions to other Vatican departments on external audits, again without informing the cardinal or the auditor general, Libero Milone. They both reprimanded APSA for the action, with Cardinal Pell saying privately that the latest “serious irregularities” show “the moment of truth” in the Vatican’s economic reforms is approaching.

Last week, Milone and one of his two deputies unexpectedly resigned with no reasons given, despite Milone expressing confidence in seeing the reforms through only three months earlier.

With the cardinal absent for an indefinite period of time (a potentially lengthy process means it is conceivable he may never return to Rome), Vatican sources say implementing reforms will be even more challenging as Cardinal Pell’s direct line with the Holy Father was of considerable help in pushing the reforms through, despite the expected resistance from some other parties.

The sources say the reforms will now depend on the Council for the Economy, the body set up to oversee the secretariat’s work, headed by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and also a member of the C9.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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